Learn This: Climb at 80-Percent Effort for Long-Term Performance

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“I’m gonna send my hardest route today!” These words are often repeated at the sport crags, the boulders, and even on long trad routes. It’s a bold statement, but a common one. Many of us believe we can operate at our absolute best every time we go climbing. Furthermore, we always want to push ourselves, climbing harder and harder routes all the time. But is this realistic? Can we keep improving indefinitely, just by going out and trying our utmost every time we climb? While this approach will create a steep acceleration early in your career, especially at the lower grades, the longer you climb the more this method leads to plateaus.

As I’ve learned through my own experience, closely studying high-end climbers’ training logs, climbing with elite climbers, and reading dozens of climbing training books, you’ll improve faster and with better results if you regularly aim to climb just below your limit—right around 80 percent of your maximum ability. This will yield faster improvements, as you’ll learn skills faster, you’ll send more often (and gain momentum from that), and you’ll recover more quickly between sessions. It’s a method I’ve found immensely successful. Just as one example, in spring 2015, I deliberately climbed 50 sport routes from 5.12a to 5.12c, at my 80-percent range, and then returned to my four-year project, the Freerider (VI 5.13a) on El Capitan, and climbed it in a day.

Find Your 80 Percent

Chances are you can recall your few hardest sends, but can you remember the routes that came before, that helped you reach that level? Your goal here is to build a pyramid with a strong foundation—the base layers—supporting your ultimate goal. A good rule of thumb is to start with problems between one and two V grades below your hardest bouldering send or with routes one or two letter grades below your hardest redpoint. If you’ve climbed V5, then aim for hard V3s and V4. For routes, if you’ve climbed 5.12a, gun for 5.11d. Aim to have your hardest projects top out at 80 percent of your max ability.

One of the best ways to determine what your “80 percent” climbs are is to track your ascents by keeping a logbook or by doing so digitally, using 8a.nu, Sendage.com, or other online databases. These are also invaluable places to see how the best climbers achieved their hardest ascents. If you look at the best American sport climber, Jonathan Siegrist’s, scorecard, you’ll notice that he’s done 1 5.15b, 8 5.15a’s, and 27 5.14d’s. Adam Ondra’s scorecard mirrors the same concept, with 1 5.15d, 3 5.15c’s, 19 5.15b’s, and 40 5.15a’s. The majority of their ascents are below their hardest. They’ve built up a wide pyramid base of routes in their 80-percent range before pushing their climbing further, focusing the majority of their time on sub-maximal ascents. They also tend to send routes close together, going on a streak. This comes in part from the momentum they build from sending.

Skills Acquisition

Sports like running, rowing, and cycling involve the same movement patterns—they are cyclic and can be trained through specific movement exercises. Climbing, however, is acyclic—the movements change every time you encounter a new route or boulder problem. And even on the same route, you may not do each sequence exactly the same each time. While this variety makes climbing exciting, it also makes it more difficult to train for.

Many climbers try to improve through sport-specific training like campusing and hangboarding, and while this can help, it also creates habitual motor patterns. There are rarely moves outside that perfectly mimic 1-4-7 on a campus board, or if there are, you likely have to move from campusing into a topout mantel, for example, recruiting new skills. Thus, improvement in climbing should be aimed at helping you learn and retain new motor patterns. The more you climb, the easier climbing becomes, as you can more quickly recall moves from the memories your muscles have built. Grabbing unique holds and doing different moves will add to your repertoire so that when you encounter a similar move again, you’ll be able to execute.

That said, you also want these new moves to be doable, so that you can roll them into your movement database. If a move is too difficult, you’ll be unable to do it often enough to engrain it. Indeed, you may even pattern how not to do the move—how to fail. This can lead to habitually climbing moves incorrectly. By operating at 80 percent, you’ll be able to do larger volumes of quality climbing, acquiring more skills more quickly. When you have to try semi-hard to figure out a new sequence, you’ll learn new motor patterns.

Better Recovery

The best way to improve at climbing is to avoid injuries. Quite predictably, we often get injured from pushing too hard­—when we’re always trying to climb at 100 percent. You run the risk of an acute injury, from climbing slightly out of control, as well as chronic injury, caused by always pushing. Climbing at a sub-maximal level will help avoid these scenarios.

Moreover, trying extremely hard all the time is draining, putting you on a physical and emotional roller coaster. Often, you’ll be unable to climb hard again for a discrete period after you send at your limit, whether it’s due to muscular fatigue, mental burnout, or some combination thereof. Climbing just below this level will help you recover faster emotionally and mentally. Additionally, with a strong base built up at the 80-percent level, you’ll have less of a post-send washout. You’ll be able to return to a decent level more quickly. And on a physical level, your body will have more leeway to rest, recover, and repair if you climb mostly below your max.

Do the Math!

As you plan out your goals for the year, you should aim to spend the majority of your time—80 to 90 percent—in the 80-percent range. Knowing when to ramp up the difficulty to an all-out project can be hard. The longer you climb, the more you’ll need to train in the 80-percent zone to push your levels. A good metric is to complete a base level of three to five climbs one grade below your next target before moving on to that grade, ideally all in the same season. That is, if your next goal is 5.13a after sending 5.12d, then do three to five 5.12d’s in one season before moving on.

When picking a project, think about how hard it will be for you and how much time it will take. A route at your limit will probably take you twice as long as a route at 80 percent. So, if your ultimate goal will take 3 weeks of effort and you want to send it in the autumn, with perfect conditions, then work on routes at your 80-percent level for the 12 weeks prior—the summer. Meanwhile, as you work on your project, you should also be sending routes that you can easily complete as well. A side project at your 80-percent level, which you can try once or twice the same day after putting in burns on your main project, will help prevent burnout.

While progression through this method is slow, it’s also a surefire way to make yourself a better climber and to climb well along on the way.

Sending Is a Skill

Clipping chains on a project, topping out boulder problems, and finishing long trad climbs come partly with experience and partly with preparation and timing. But sending is also a skill you can develop through practice. Often, climbers who spend their time projecting will fall, jump off, or hang when things go less than perfectly. When it’s time to battle through a lactic-acid pump, bear down on crimps to top out a boulder, or to keep moving along a steep, sustained crack, they simply give up. Unfortunately, this can also become an engrained habit.

Because climbing is acyclic, the best opportunity to work on developing the grit you need to push through on projects is on climbs just below your limit—in other words, you engrain the act of sending on sub-maximal routes so that later, on limit climbs, you can more easily recall what needs to happen. Clipping chains on a regular basis helps you build momentum and confidence to continue sending. Just like your body learns how to intuitively drop-knee or gaston, it will also learn how to push itself to succeed.